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Editorial: PG&E is a convicted killer. It can’t be allowed to kill again

A view of Paradise, Calif., in the aftermath of the lethal Camp fire.
The Camp fire nearly wiped out the town of Paradise, Calif.
(Los Angeles Times)

It was no surprise that the state’s largest power company would take responsibility in court for the death and destruction of the 2018 Camp fire, the state’s deadliest wildfire on record.

Pacific Gas & Electric officials had already said in regulatory filings that they would plead guilty to the criminal charges, admitting that their equipment was responsible for the events that led to the failure of a century-old transmission line. The catastrophic fire that ensued killed 85 people and nearly wiped out the entire town of Paradise in the Northern California foothills.

But when PG&E executives pleaded guilty (on behalf of the corporation, not themselves) Tuesday to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter and one count of unlawfully setting a fire, it was a potent and wrenching reminder that this was just the latest carnage wrought by the investor-owned power company over the years.

Even before its poorly maintained electrical equipment ignited the Camp fire, PG&E power lines had sparked so many other large and destructive wildfires that the combined liability costs forced it to seek bankruptcy protection in 2019. Over the years, state regulators had fined the utility time and again for failing to properly maintain its equipment or trim the surrounding vegetation, yet it continued to operate negligently. In fact, PG&E is still on probation today for its first criminal conviction: six felony counts stemming from the explosion of a gas pipeline in San Bruno in 2010 that killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes.

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If PG&E were a person, he or she would be on the way to prison right now.

But there’s no way to lock up a corporation, and because the decisions that led to the fires were made by many people over the course of decades it would have been difficult if not impossible to convict any specific executives. Still, the utility will pay something for its crimes — $25.5 billion to victims of the Camp fire and several other wildfires in 2017 and 2018, and a $3.5-million fine levied by the California Public Utilities Commission.

There may be little satisfaction in this conviction for fire victims or loved ones of the 85 people who died in ghastly, unthinkable ways. After all, years of fines and past convictions haven’t managed to make PG&E a safer utility for the 16 million customers in central and Northern California that it serves.

However, there is reason to hope that this time will be different and that PG&E’s killing spree has come to an end.

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As part of the deal with Gov. Gavin Newsom that a federal bankruptcy judge is expected to approve this month, PG&E agreed to a sweeping restructuring that will prioritize safety and accountability, along with an unprecedented level of government oversight and regulation. Shareholders won’t get dividends for three years, and the board of directors must be overhauled to include industry experts and California residents.

But here’s the key to making the deal stick: If PG&E fails to follow through or sets more fires, it could have its operating license revoked by state regulators and be forced, under the terms of the deal, to sell its operations to the state or a nonprofit entity. And the state is getting prepared for the possibility. Both houses of the state Legislature have supported a bill by Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo) that would establish a nonprofit public benefit corporation called Golden State Energy that would be ready to buy PG&E assets.

This arrangement falls short of the full government takeover of the utility that several elected officials have advocated. But it’s a reasonable middle ground for now. Creating a public power cooperative or state power authority would be costly to taxpayers, and the company would likely fight in court for years to prevent it from happening. This deal allows the company to keep operating if it does so prudently and safely, but forces a sale if it continues to be negligent.

That’s powerful leverage for the state to ensure compliance. Newsom should make it abundantly clear to PG&E executives that if they backslide on the company’s commitment to safety and reform, he won’t hesitate to take away their keys.


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